Summary Judgement: Though it might prove difficult to approach this series in medias res, the latest entry into the Safehold mythos offers an evocative political narrative set amid a world that fuses science fiction, fantasy, and history.
Written by: David Weber
Review based off the audio novel as published by Macmillan Audio.
Before writing this review I took a moment to re-read my review of the first book in the Safehold series, Off Armageddon Reef. In June of last year, when I had my introduction to planet Safehold, Merlin Athrawes, and the Kingdom of Charis, I found myself likening Weber’s novel to something out of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series. It might technically be science fiction, but it read with all the nuance and attention to detail of good historical fiction. Having spent the last two weeks listening to the audio book of How Firm A Foundation, I feel I must invoke another writer’s name when speaking about the latest entry into the Safehold saga: Tom Clancy.
Ostensibly, How Firm a Foundation is also a work of science fiction. Yet, politics and intrigue drive almost everything that happens within the novel. It seems that with each new entry, the futuristic elements of the grand narrative become further subsumed in the realpolitik of Charis’ war with Safehold’s repressive Church of God Awating and the allied nations of that church. Though highly descriptive sea battles remain an essential part of this story, they are predicated upon and followed by explorations of the resulting political and social fallout. Perhaps more so now than after the first book’s release, the Safehold series lives somewhere between genres, even if the division is less between sci-fi and fantasy and more between political thriller and historical fiction with only the slightest dash of things fantastic.
As was the case with the other entries into the series, the title of the novel is inexorably linked to the theme of the book. How Firm a Foundation is not simply an arbitrary name, but the question that drives the story. Upon how firm a foundation does the Church of God Awaiting sit as the Empire of Charis expands its benevolent yet steadfast protestant banner? How firm is the Church’s claim to piety when it sanctions suicide bombing, torture and other acts of terror in god’s name? How firm is the foundation upon which Charis claims both power and spiritual legitimacy? Emperor Cayleb and Emperess Sharleyan might command the most powerful navy and technologically advanced army in all of Safehold, but what good are those weapons against Church propaganda and zealous temple loyalists still living within Charis’ borders?
In asking such deep questions, any novel, especially one in a long running series, runs the risk of becoming ponderous and dull. Weber goes so far as to double down on that risk in marrying rigorously detailed naval scenes to the overall story. Yet it works within this novel as Weber has a marvelous way of using world building as a tool for character development. This tactic has the benefit of making even the most trifling red-shirt feel connected to a world beyond their scope. When applied to major players within Safehold’s story, it’s all but impossible not to feel invested in their lives, or deaths.
Yes, I said deaths. With this novel focusing so intently on the politics of Safehold, the stakes are necessarily increased. As such, people die. Naturally I won’t so much as even hint at who meets their maker except to say that one such death caught me so off guard that I found myself simultaneously saddened and also furious at Mr. Weber’s temerity to kill off a character that I perpetually enjoyed.
I mentioned earlier in this review that I had the pleasure of enjoying HFAF in audio format. Notwithstanding the kiddie version of Star Wars that came with a 24 page illustrated book, I can’t say that I have ever listened to an audio novel. In honesty, I didn’t think it to be a medium that I would particularly enjoy – primarily because I can read faster than the average person can speak. Yet, Charles Keating’s flawless narration adds a heightened dimension to David Weber’s words. In fact, I think narration is the wrong word to describe precisely what Mr. Keating does with this novel. It’s very much a one man performance of How Firm A Foundation. Without reducing the characters to vocal gimmicks or clichés, Keating effortlessly transitions from exposition to dialogue. Though if I am being totally honest, the thing that sold me on Keating’s performance was his interpretation of Grand Inquistor Zhaspahr Clyntahn. Clyntahn, the defacto ruler of the Church of God Awaiting, oozes enmity and Keating’s voice captures his personality with such precision that I when I read Safehold Book 6 it will be Keating’s voice that I hear in my head when Clyntahn speaks.
One question that comes up when approaching a novel that is part of a larger series involves the necessity of reading everything which came before it. Should a newbie broach How Firm A Foundation without a familiarity with the previous four novels? Should somebody watch The Empire Strikes Back without seeing A New Hope? The answer is the same for both questions: you could but you would miss out on a lot of contextual details. Although HFAF isn’t a standalone novel, it does seem a nice bookend to numerous plot threads that began in By Heresies Distressed (Book 3) and continued through A Mighty Fortress (Book 4). While the characterization, allegory and attention to detail are strong enough to get a newbie through the book, they would be doing themselves a disservice by not fully investing in the series as a whole.
It’s also worth noting that How Firm A Foundation is, in my estimation, the strongest of the Safehold novels to date. That isn’t to say that anything that came before even slightly resembles a bad book. Rather, By Schism Rent Asunder (Book 2) and By Heresies Distressed (Book 3) read more like the inaugural movements of a grand game of chess. They are necessary, but not nearly as exciting as when the stratagems start to unfold for all to see – as was the case in A Mighty Fortress (Book 4). How Firm a Foundation builds on that momentum but infuses a tangible sense that one game is coming to an end vis-à-vis the Church’s ability to fight Charis through conventional means, a new and more ruthless game of asynchronous warfare is beginning.
My only concern with this novel, and the Safehold series as a whole, is that it might be starting to get a little too grand. Though Mr. Weber keeps himself to a tighter production schedule than other writers (George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you) he has created a saga that is no less nuanced and involved than A Song of Fire and Ice. Despite the ease in comparison, the essential difference between Safehold and A Song of Fire and Ice is that I can envision an ending to the former, not so much with the latter.
I expect the very last chapter of the final Safehold book ends with the PICA that contains the consciousness of Nimue Alban standing on the bridge of a newly minted Terran Federation warship. Crewed by the descendents of the house of Ahrmahk and accompanied by a vast armada, they square off against a Gbaba fleet in orbit of Old Terra. But like any good road trip, knowing the destination in no way diminishes the experience of getting there. After witnessing the events of How Firm A Foundation, I can not wait to see what comes next.
Overall Score: +3.75